Carolina Jews for Justice West: Racial Justice in Western NC project

Custom & Craft
Los Angeles, California United States
Leadership team

Eileen Levinson, Founder & Creative Director
Wendy Jackler, Program Manager

Organization website
Prize category
1 – 3 years
Target audience

From its inception in 2014, a primary focus of CJJ/West has been on issues of racial justice, and it is the only Jewish organization in the region to do so. Particularly in a time of increased potential tension between Jews and African-Americans, CJJ/West believes it is more important now than ever to establish positive relations with the Black community. Furthermore, CJJ/West is the only Jewish organization in the region to focus on issues of racial justice as part of its social justice program.

What Jewish wisdom do you use in your work?

- The Black-Jewish Alliance. In 2015 we established the Black-Jewish Alliance, which consists of an even number of Blacks and Jewish Whites (and one person who is both Black and Jewish). We meet monthly for a meal and a facilitated discussion on race relations, not with the aim of engaging jointly in any other project, but simply for the purpose of getting to know each other personally and developing solid relationships. The group is intentionally kept to 30 persons to allow close friendships to develop.
- Acknowledging Black History. In our first year we sponsored several programs to inform people about the contributions of African-Americans to the development of Asheville and Western North Carolina. The first of these was a lecture by Dr. Darin Waters (pictured in the attached photo), Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina–Asheville (and a member of our Black-Jewish Alliance), on the little-known history of the slave trade in Asheville and the significance of Black labor to the establishment of the city. In conjunction with that program, we advocated for the establishment of a historic marker in the center of the city to balance the existing large monument dedicated to Zebulon Vance, who was a local slave owner and a Confederate Army officer before becoming Governor of North Carolina. We sponsored a program, held in the Black community and timed to coincide with the release of the movie “Selma,” on the Freedom Summer civil rights movement in the Deep South, with an interracial panel that included veterans of that effort. More recently, we sponsored a program on the issues arising out of Ferguson, Missouri, with the screening of a documentary film and a panel discussion that included the county sheriff and the chief of police, as well as Black activists. All of these programs have been well attended, some so popular that it was standing room only. In each case, we have tied the events to our own history as Jewish people in the diaspora to show the connections between our struggles and the struggles presented and the need for mutual support.
- Supporting Black Economic Development. CJJ/West has partnered with Green Opportunities, a local non-profit that trains hard-to-place men and women for jobs in the culinary and construction fields (with plans for more trades). We have sponsored a program to inform local contractors, architects, developers and other firms about the desirability of hiring these well-trained people, and we have utilized the services of Kitchen Ready, GO’s culinary training program, for our events and meetings (the lead chef and manager of Kitchen Ready is a young Jewish man who is also a member of our Black-Jewish Alliance; he is pictured in the attached photo). In addition, we participated in the first tour of historically Black neighborhoods by Hood Huggers, a Black-owned business developed by another of our Black-Jewish Alliance members. We have sponsored a “Poverty Simulation” program held at GO presented by Just Economics, a non-profit that advocates for living wages, affordable housing, better public transportation, and other poverty-fighting initiatives. These programs have involved Jewish speakers that connect our Jewish values to the needs of our local community, particularly around poverty.
- Advocacy. CJJ/West is a founding member (and only Jewish organization) of the Racial Justice Coalition, a group consisting of representatives from a number of non-profit organizations that meets monthly to focus on issues of police-community relations. Both the local sheriff and the chief of police have met multiple times with the group, and recently the City of Asheville agreed to have the RJC participate in developing “best practices” policies on law enforcement practices such as body cameras, access to information, and use of force practices. We also work closely with area branches of the NAACP (the president of the Asheville Branch is a member of the Black-Jewish Alliance) and with the state NAACP (we recently spoke by invitation on race in the criminal justice system at a “Mountain Moral Monday” rally in Sylva, NC, at which the state president of the NAACP, Rev. Dr. William Barber, spoke – and we were asked to sound the shofar to kick off the program! Photos are attached.) We are also regular participants in the annual “Stand Against Racism” event sponsored by the YWCA.

How does your program work to make that wisdom accessible and directly applicable to your audience's lives?

Our program seeks to draw on Jewish values and principles around Tikkun Olam to involve the Jewish community in community building with the Black community in our area. Our local Rabbis have supported and attend the programs, and we have also had Jewish participants write up reflections on their experiences to share with a larger audience via email, our website, and on Facebook. We take our learning from each event to plan next steps to continue to build strong relationships in the community and carry out the work of Tikkun Olam in an applied, productive context locally.

Our Torah does not explicitly command racial justice as such. Indeed, the institution of slavery, although not racially based per se, is firmly established in it. And yet the Torah also teaches that Jews are especially charged with loving all others, neighbors and strangers alike, because we know their hearts, precisely because we were slaves in the land of Egypt. We are taught to treat people as individuals without distinction of their origin or other superficial differences: לָכֶם יִהְיֶה מִכֶּם אֶזְרָח (“The stranger among you shall be like you.”) Equality under the law has its foundation in the Torah: “There shall be one law for the home-born and for the stranger who dwells among you.” Our tradition demands that we act on these principles.

What impact has your program had on your participants?

Progress in race relations is incremental, and it would be unrealistic to claim to have achieved dramatic results in the short term. Still, we are confident that our efforts have led to heightened mutual respect and cooperation between African-Americans and Jews in Western North Carolina, and we look forward to continuing this crucial work.

What have you learned about applied Jewish wisdom that contributes to your success?

Jewish residents of Western North Carolina connect deeply to their Jewish identities through a framework of social justice, regardless of their level of Jewish education or engagement in Jewish institutions and religious life. Our approach to engaging the local Jewish community through real local problems and community building and friendships draws people in and gives them a way to "Act Jewishly," learning about themselves while making a difference and building new relationships. The programs also give us a way to teach non-Jews about the Western NC Jewish community and who we are.